Freedom of expression & political oppression in a digital age in the chilling, intersectional, provocative Theory

Sascha Cole. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

 

Under what circumstances should freedom of expression be censored or policed? At what point does politics, however liberal or progressive, become unforgiving and oppressive? Tarragon Theatre’s production of Norman Yeung’s Theory, directed by Esther Jun, assisted by Stephanie Williams, examines the impact of film and social media on modern-day discourse through an intersectional lens, where academia meets art—with chilling and provocative results.

I saw the genesis of Theory, first as a reading at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival and then as a full production at SummerWorks, back in 2010. It appeared again at Alumnae during FireWorks Festival 2013—at which point, at the suggestion of dramaturge Shirley Barrie, lead character Isabelle’s boyfriend was re-written as a female character. I missed the 2013 production, but was happy to see the evolution of the piece in the current Tarragon presentation, where Isabelle has a wife who is also a person of colour.

Rookie film studies prof Isabelle (Sascha Cole, in the role from the very beginning) has set up an online message board off the campus server—a bit of a rogue move that becomes even more so with an ‘anything goes’ policy. Her film theory students will self-moderate and there are no plans for censorship. And, in a classic Dead Poets Society moment, she has her students tear out the film screening list from the syllabus—full of white male directors—and replaces it with a more diverse, contemporary list. Even her core group of vocal, engaged students—Davinder (Bilal Baig), Safina (Asha James), Richard (Kyle Orzech) and Jorge (Anthony Perpuse)—have questions and misgivings about the nature of the message board and revised film list, which includes the controversial Baise Moi, translated into Rape Me in an English release.

Isabelle’s wife Lee (Audrey Dwyer)—a Black, tenured prof at the same university—also has reservations about the student message board; and like her, one can’t help but wonder if Isabelle is trying too hard to look cool and connect with her students as adults and academics. Racist and homophobic remarks begin to emerge on the message board—presented onstage via projection (design by Cameron Davis)—some of which are directed at other students.  And, while Isabelle insists that nothing offends her and refuses to censor the board—viewing the remarks in the context of fodder for adult, academic conversation and exploration—some of her students don’t see it that way.

Video messages start appearing, at first referencing films the class is studying, then getting increasingly graphic and violent, and directed toward Isabelle. Becoming obsessed with finding out who the perpetrator is, the strain on Isabelle and her relationship with Lee starts to show; she keeps putting off their plans to have a baby and starts spending an inordinate amount of time on the message board.

As the messages get more personal and close to home, showing up in her personal email, text messages and even on her doorstep, Isabelle blocks a user called @Richard69 and turns to department head Owen (Fabrizio Filippo) to see if she can launch a complaint or investigation to learn the identity of the student. It’s during this meeting that she learns there’s been a complaint launched against her. Isabelle begins to suspect the culprit is among her core group of students, but has no solid proof.

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Sascha Cole & Audrey Dwyer. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

Outstanding work from the cast in this chilling multi-media psychological thriller. There’s a taut scholarly edge in Cole’s performance of Isabelle; and an awkwardness in Isabelle’s attempts to connect with her students on a laid back, personal level. Under pressure to make tenure, Isabelle must walk the line between provoking thought and keeping her students and  superiors happy. Dwyer’s good-humoured academic veteran Lee goes beyond being a great foil and complement to Cole’s Isabelle—she’s the sociopolitical conscience in the relationship and in the piece. A supportive and nurturing partner, Lee has no trouble calling Isabelle out when she’s neglecting their relationship or forgetting to check her privilege. Filippo gives a great turn as the cool guy department head Owen; like Isabelle, he’s invested in keeping everyone happy—but his flip, hip dude exterior belies the institutional administrator who must also answer to higher powers in the university.

Really nice, sharply drawn work from the student chorus. Baig’s sassy, queer South Asian Davinder and James’ earnest, politically aware Safina (Asha James), who is Black, are particularly aware of and sensitive to the homophobic and racist remarks posted online; and Safina is uncomfortable with some of the course content. Both are open and willing to expand their minds and engage in debate; but they understandably draw the line at hate messaging. Perpuse brings a fun class clown energy to Jorge, who posits that porn should be given equal consideration with other genres. And Orzech’s nerdy, curious Richard seems affable enough, but there’s a dark undercurrent to this curious, white kid as he pleads “context” to his observations on films featuring storytelling filtered through a racist lens.

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Bilal Baig, Anthony Perpuse, Asha James, Kyle Orzech & Sascha Cole. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

Isabelle realizes that she’s underestimated the power of a digital media and the accompanying anonymity of user names, which make for an easy, consequence-free platform for hate speech and intolerance; and she’s forced to examine her inconsistent handling of conversation that veers toward hate speech. Her progressive feminist liberal politics and attempts at provoking thought have pushed buttons and opened a Pandora’s box of alt-right ill will. Is she complicit in fostering oppression by holding back on deleting racist and homophobic comments? Timely in its recognition of alt-right backlash, Theory reminds us of the inevitable pendulum backswing on progressive sociopolitical change.

Theory continues in the Tarragon Extraspace until November 25. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office at 416-531-1827.

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SummerWorks: Powerful, moving & darkly funny apocalyptic musical And Now, The End

HERO-And-Now-the-End-149-620x500A musical about an impending apocalypse by asteroid? Count me in!

Ante Up Productions’ And Now, The End at SummerWorks – by writing team Victoria Hauser, Emily Nixon, Drew O’Hara, Zach Parkhurst and Jake Vanderham, with music, lyrics and music direction by Vanderham, and direction by Esther Jun – is just the thing.

Roxton, a small Canadian town, becomes a microcosm for a what-if scenario of an upcoming global-scale disaster, where we see the practical, social, emotional and psychological effects on humanity. The opening scene between the Doctor (Amir Haidar) and Patient (Zach Parkhurst) sets the tone: the Doctor’s job has become about assisted suicide.

Attempts to stop Asteroid AXS-677’s trajectory towards Earth have failed and citizens have been told that it will collide in a year, in effect ending the world. The news throws society into chaos, forcing people to rely on transistor radios and landlines to maintain communication. Buddies Dan (Paolo Santalucia) and Scott (Jeff Yung) have taken advantage of the situation at the local, now abandoned, radio station where they once worked low-level jobs to start their own radio show, providing news, views and music. Cathy’s (Tamara Bernier Evans) astronaut husband is stranded on a space station and befriends her neighbour’s brother Frances (Troy Adams), who has returned home to find his brother’s family gone. School’s out for high school seniors Johnny (Hugh Ritchie) and Clare (Ruth Goodwin), but these BFFs will never really graduate. And Inez (Kaleigh Gorka) is alone and will give birth within the year.

The score soars and moves, with gorgeous cello arrangements, beautiful lyrics and strong vocals from the ensemble. Full cast choral work book-ends the show with “Beneath Our Falling Sky” to set the scene and the finale “Look To The Burning Horizon,” a bittersweet, hopeful anthem for what’s to come. Santalucia’s and Yung’s scenes provide great comic relief (“Listen To Our Show”). Gorka and Haidar give a lovely performance of the passionate and conflicted love song “Kiss Me;” while Bernier Evans’ moving “Parts of You” is a heartbreaking grasp at the memory of what her husband looks like – and Adams is equally moving as the man who reluctantly stands in for that memory (“Crazy”). Goodwin’s account of an incident from Clare’s past, one that has repercussions today (“Look in the Eyes”), is a beautifully rendered ballad of pain and conflicting emotions. Ritchie’s “Frogs in the Rain,” a song about Johnny and Clare’s childhood adventures, brought tears to my eyes.

These are complex relationships, made all the more poignant by the countdown to impact: One year, one month, one week. One day.

With shouts to Beth Kates’ set design: the sterile white environment, the abandoned personal artifacts, and the moving flats with black light-activated illustrations of the constellations, are starkly beautiful – not to mention eerie.

And Now, The End is a powerful, moving and darkly funny apocalyptic musical with an outstanding cast and score.

Do the Mirvish folks know about this?

There are two more performances for this run, playing at the Theatre Passe Muraille main space: tonight (Sat, Aug 16) at 10 p.m. and Sun, Aug 17 at 5 p.m. You can also follow And Now, The End on Facebook.